Reforms Promote Scientific Integrity

When Professor of Biological Oceanography James J. McCarthy heard about President Barack Obama’s reforms promoting scientific integrity in government earlier this week, he said he wasn’t shocked.

“Nobody was surprised he did this,” said McCarthy, who was one of the original signers of a document in 2004 that accused former President George W. Bush of “misrepresenting and suppressing” science for political reasons.

“Mr. Obama has surrounded himself with the very best scientific talent any president has had,” he said. “As advisers or heads of agencies, no president has drawn such talent into his apparatus.”

McCarthy was not alone in his acclaim for Obama’s Monday announcement, which consisted of an executive order lifting the ban on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. It also included a memorandum that authorized John P. Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in Washington and a Harvard professor of environmental policy, to issue recommendations on ensuring scientific integrity in governance.

Several Harvard professors praised Obama for reopening funding and creating the framework for reforming the role of science in public policy.

Manfred Baetscher, director of the Genome Modification Facility at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, uses mice as a way to test methods of applying stem cell research. He called Obama’s announcement “a decision that’s been long overdue.”

Baetscher also said that with the ban lifted, stem cell research will be more cost-efficient. According to Baetscher, researchers under the ban could not use equipment purchased with federal funds on human stem cells, meaning that oftentimes, research facilities had equipment reserved for humans and other equipment dedicated to animals.

As for climate change, Brian F. Farrell, professor of meteorology, cautioned against expecting immediate action in public policy, noting that even science doesn’t have all of the answers on the issue.

“I think first what you have to do is carefully assess the situation, that is, the most likely outcomes,” Farrell said. “You have to do the science correctly. I think one of the problems right now is that science can’t really answer the question of what will be the effect.”

But Farrell was not cautious in condemning the Bush administration for its relationship with science, saying that “the previous administration just ignored or put off science” because of an agenda that was economically and morally motivated.

The Clinton administration did very little with regard to science as well, said James G. Anderson, professor of atmospheric chemistry, arguing that the Clinton administration, while more open to science philosophically, in practice did not develop the infrastructure needed for energy and climate change research.

Obama, Anderson believes, will be different because, in part, his rhetoric shows a more thorough understanding of science.

“He described the problem without uttering the words ‘global warming,’” said Anderson. “For anyone studying this problem, it’s known that using the words ‘global warming’ is an inaccurate way of describing what’s happening in the climate.”

“2009 is a year we will all remember,” Anderson said in praise of Obama’s memorandum. “It’s a turning point in confronting the issue of energy and the climate structure related to energy.”